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Comparing the Financial Lives of Doctors & Professional Athletes

I’ve always loved playing and watching sports. I love the Yankees and Jets. Love UConn basketball. When it comes to NBA, I guess my team is the Knicks. But I just like watching good basketball. So it makes sense that I’m also interested in the financial lives of professional athletes. The thing is…the more I learned, the more I realized how similar they are to the financial lives of physicians.

And the recent strike in Major League Baseball and the new NIL deals available to college athletes has me thinking even more about the financial health of athletes compared to doctors.

Disclaimer: This is one of the most fun posts that I have written thus far!

Let me elaborate

How many times have you heard a high income earner like a doctor marvel at the contract of a professional athlete?

“Oh man, if I signed a contract for $10 million, I’d be set. I should’ve become a baseball player.” “Look at that guy (or girl) making $1 million to sit on the bench.”

I used to say the same things.

Now I don’t.

Why I’d rather be a doctor than an athlete

Let’s get one thing straight. I was never really in danger of having to make this decision. I was pretty good at baseball. But I made a decision in college to stop playing baseball and instead become a Chemistry major (instead of Business) and focus on academics. This led me to become a doctor.

I never would have been a professional athlete. But it was a dream. And even remained a fantasy after most of my athletic skills passed me by.

Play a game for a living? Make stacks of money. Uhh…yes, please!

Maybe you thought or think something similar? Do you shake your head at the contracts signed by professional athletes? Maybe you feel angry or jealous? Like you deserve a contract like that. You’re a doctor!

My advice is for you to pump the brakes.

Be glad that you are a doctor and not a professional athlete.

Let’s financially compare the average doctor to the average professional athlete

This will be a simple comparison.

The average physician

The average doctor in 2020 made about $250,000. Let’s say the average length of a doctor’s career is 30 years. That equates to lifetime earnings of $7.5 million. Let’s even say that this “average doc” pays $150,000 of interest on their average loans of $200,000 by paying them off slowly over 30 years instead of aggressively over 5 years. That’s still an excess of $7M in lifetime earnings.

Related Post:
Comprehensive Analysis of the 2020 Doximity Physician Compensation Report

The average professional athlete

The average professional athlete made $51,929 in 2021.

financial lives of professional athletes and doctors

Average career length of a professional athlete is 10 years. And that is generous. That includes sports like golf. It’s much lower if you just count the big ones like NBA, WNBA, NFL, MLB, etc.

(As I write this, I can’t help but think about the major disparities in gender compensation in both medicine and athletics. This is an important and all-together different conversation and argument. For the sake of this post, the “average” doctor and athlete includes both males and females being compensated equally, even though I sadly recognize this is not the current reality.)

That’s a career earnings, on average, of $519,290.

The average doctor wins big time. Still jealous?

“Ok, fine. But what about the financial lives of big time athletes?”

I can hear the question already. So let’s talk about it.

No one is going to argue that even the highest paid doctor will compete financially with LeBron James or Pat Mahomes.

And honestly, I’m not sure that we as physicians should compete financially. It may not be fair, but people are compensated in this world based on how many other people can do what you do. The more people that can do it, the less you get paid. And vice versa.

And the truth is that there are many more people who can perform a triple bypass than can throw 100 miles per hour.

But then again, maybe improving quantity and quality of life is a more important skill. This is for the philosophers to discuss and beyond my point…

Let’s compare me to an “above average” professional athlete earner

I’m not naive. As it comes to physicians, I am certainly an above average earner as a plastic surgeon. Plastic surgeons are nearly continuously at the top of the list of physician compensation. And I make about the average for a plastic surgeon…a fact that I am very appreciative of especially as it is only my first year out of training.

So, I signed a 3 year contract for about $1.5 million. Again, my career length can be listed at 30 years.

Related Posts:
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Physician Contract Negotiation
9 Steps to Negotiating the Best Physician Contract
I Found My Perfect Physician Job in 6 Steps!

Let’s compare my yearly earnings to the average “big 4” athlete (source):

  • MLB: $4 million/year x 5.6 years = $22.4M career earnings
  • NFL: $3.26M/year x 3.5 years = $11.41M career earnings
  • NBA: $8.32M/year x 4.8 years = $39.9M career earnings
  • NHL: $2.69M/year x 5.5 year = $14.795 career earnings

Average Composite Big 4 Athlete = $4.57M/year x 4.85 years = $22.13M career earnings
Me (“Average Above Average Physician Earner”) = $0.5M/year x 30 years = $15M career earnings

The again assumes that I will never get a pay raise. It also doesn’t take into account the ~$650K I will pay in principal and interest in student loans. But that amount is really a dent when looking at my overall career earnings.

Related Posts:
Revealing My Secret Strategy to Pay My Huge Student Debt
The Important Difference Between Good and Bad Debt for Doctors

But pretty darn similar…Would I like $7M more, sure. But certainly not needed to live an amazingly beyond blessed life.

Are you surprised at how similar both the “average” and “above average” earnings comparisons between doctors and professional athletes are?

I know that I was.

But what really unifies the financial lives of doctors and professional athletes?

Money mismanagement.

Related Post:
Financial Education 101: How to Finally Get Started on the Path to Financial Well-Being

This is the unifying force in the financial lives of both professional athletes and physicians. Both professions notoriously spend unwisely, fail to invest for the future, and get no sympathy from others for their financial woes.

The reasons why are different, but not by as much as you might think.

Professional athletes:

  • Start making huge amounts of money when they are very young and inexperienced with personal finance
  • Lack financial education
  • Have many people in their lives who have sacrificed much for their success that they feel the need to care for financially
  • Are influenced by an image of what a professional athlete should “look like.” They spend to meet this image.
  • Overestimate the length of their career and therefore their lifetime earnings
  • Are susceptible to career threatening injuries that can abruptly limit their earnings

Doctors:

  • Accrue huge amounts of debt when they are very young and inexperienced with personal finance
  • Lack financial education
  • Have many people in their lives who have sacrificed much for their success that they feel the need to care for financially
  • Are influenced by an image of what a doctor should “look like.” They spend to meet this image.
  • Overestimate the length of their career and therefore their lifetime earnings
  • Are susceptible to career threatening burnout/moral injury that can abruptly limit their earnings

Related Post:
Overcoming Consumerism in a Culture Obsessed with It
The Simple Formula to Practice Intentional Spending

Hmmm…maybe they are not all that different at all!

In fact, both professions are also prone to horror stories of members making obscene amounts of money and then falling into bankruptcy or worse due to horrible financial decisions. Just read about Antoine Walker or some of these docs.

What’s the point?

It’s fair to ask what the ultimate point of this post is.

It started out as me being interested in how the financial lives of docs compared to professional athletes, at least on the average. I used to be really envious of these same athletes. Then I started to wonder if doctors actually had it better.

What I found still surprised me a bit. Doctors make less over a longer time while athletes make a lot more over a lot shorter time. But the overall outcome is not very different. More over, even peripheral research will show that both professions struggle with financial issues for very similar reasons.

So I guess my point is that we (as doctors) can be thankful that we are compensated on a level similar to highly regarded professional athletes while also enjoying way more career stability.

You and Steph Curry both will make a ton of money in your lives. And it’s up to both of you to learn enough about personal finance to put it to good use to change yours and others’ lives for the better!

Ready to learn how to turn your high income as a doctor into a high net worth? Check out these posts!

graduating to success 
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What do you think? How are the financial lives of athletes and doctors similar? How are they different? Which would you rather be? Let me know in the comments below!

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    The Prudent Plastic Surgeon

    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected]

    10 thoughts on “Comparing the Financial Lives of Doctors & Professional Athletes”

    1. A fun read! The other factor to think about in this comparison though is the contribution of compounding growth of investments over time of all That excess $ earned earlier on by athletes – assuming the money is managed Well in both sides. Like taking the lump sum of a lottery vs yearly payout.

      Reply
    2. dude, not a Buffalo Bills fan? shocking!

      Hey man how much do you think the financial failure of athletes is from being targeted by financial “advisors” acting as predators, just like doctors are?

      I am really disturbed by articles such as the link below, as the target on pro-athletes seems even worse than for us docs:
      https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pro-football-legends–northwestern-mutual-providing-financial-resources-to-former-nfl-players-300483484.html

      Reply
    3. Running the parallel a bit further, most professional athletes wisely hire an agent or agency to help manage their personal and professional affairs–including contracts.

      But for some odd reason doctors ignore this option and often have a big “swing and miss” by trying to self-represent themselves.

      Doctors need agents.

      Reply

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